The ventriloquist at a birthday party

(after a photograph by Jeff Wall)


Not some smooth-talking salesman in a suit,
but a woman, almost a mother, her wooden boy
balanced on her knee. Watch how proudly

she smiles as he recites his way through line
after borrowed line, one hand placed gently
on his arm to encourage him if he falters,

no trace of anxiety on her face, though she
must know the odds against him, the small chance
of acceptance, the endless cost of otherness.

And the children, twelve of them –
an impromptu jury in their Sunday best –
their young faces not hostile, but wary,

as though this strange boy with his bulging
forehead and ridiculous suit were an exchange
student from some second hand country,

his accent off in ways they cannot place;
listening to him patiently anyway because
they are good children, and also, perhaps,

a little curious, though they are careful
not to show it, their expressions blank
and a little bored in the artificial light.

What I notice most are the balloons:
oblongs of red and orange and yellow
resting their quiet heads against the ceiling

as though they had no desire to escape,
nowhere to escape to, and were content
to stay obediently in their places,

strings dangling within easy reach,
like thoughts the children have let go off
and will return to when this is over.


~ Aseem Kaul


Aseem Kaul lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota. Aseem’s poems have appeared in DMQ Review, Night Train, Blood Orange Review, The Cortland Review, and RHINO among others, and a collection of his short fiction, titled études, was published in 2009.